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Lighter California Hass avocado crop will mean more compressed shipping season

Hass avocado trees tend to be alternate bearing, so after a 505 million-pound crop in 2013, one of the larger harvests on record, it is no surprise that the 2014 California avocado crop is expected to be significantly smaller. What is, perhaps, surprising is that last year's California crop was not lighter, inasmuch as the prior year's crop was also extremely large, making two big crop years in a row.

The 2014 crop, while "on the lighter side, is within the range of what would be considered a normal or average size crop," said Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission in Irvine, CA.20-CalAvos-CropThe 2014 California avocado crop is lighter by 40 percent than the previous two years, and volume will be concentrated over a shorter shipping season. (Photo by Rand Green)

The commission's pre-season estimate for this year's crop was 325 million pounds. That figure was adjusted downward somewhat as the early harvest got under way. "The number we have agreed to use is about 300 million pounds," although some think it may be a little shorter than that, DeLyser said March 14.

With an aggregate volume of around 1.7 billion pounds of Hass avocados expected in the United States from all sources over the course of the year, "from what the handlers are telling me, it sounds like the western regions will be the focus of their sales efforts with California fruit this year," DeLyser said.

In contrast to last year, when the shipping season for California fruit started early and ran late, the season this year is expected to be much more condensed, with the preponderance of the crop will come off during the months of May through August. Due to the shorter marketing window, the weekly flow of California fruit to core western markets during that condensed shipping period is not expected to be significantly less than it was the prior year when the larger crop was spread out over a much longer period.

Most handlers of California fruit will supplement their California crops with fruit from one or more other sources, most notably Mexico and Peru, during the California season, with much of that fruit going to customers in the eastern part of the United States. They will assure customers of year-round supplies by offering fruit mainly from Mexico and Peru during other seven months.

For most of the year, aggregate weekly volume is expected to be similar to last year, but as demand continues to rise, most marketers expect prices to remain strong.

Emiliano Escobedo, executive director of the Hass Avocado Board in Irvine, CA, which represents fruit from all producing countries, told The Produce News March 24 that the month of May could "get a little tricky," in that aggregate volume that month could be down compared to last year, but he expected that situation to "recover a little bit" in June and July.

Several factors other than market considerations will affect the timing of the harvest for some growers this year. One of those is routine cultural practices such as early size picking to reduce the load on the tree in order to give a boost to next year's crop. As of mid-May, many California avocado groves were already in bloom with the blossoms that will produce the 2015 crop.

The biggest concern for the current season, however, is water availability, and the high cost of what water is available, as avocado growing areas are increasingly affected by a severe drought now going into its third year in California.

"We are seeing some harvesting taking place now ... in a light way," said DeLyser. Some of that is from growers who are "looking to conserve water."

"We are very concerned with the current drought emergency," said Ken Melban, director of issues management for the California Avocado Commission. In Riverside and San Diego counties, some avocado growers "find themselves in a situation where they are able to get water, but it just remains very costly," at "upwards of $1,200 an acre-foot." Normally, seasonal rains would have greatly reduced the necessity of buying water, but throughout the winter and spring this season there has only been one rain event with any significant amount of precipitation.

Further north, in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, "they have their own challenges," he said. Some growers are entirely reliant on wells with water tables that have dropped during the years of drought, and in some cases the wells have dried up. In some instances, growers have harvested early and stumped back their trees hoping there will be enough water next year for the trees to re-grow. Other growers expect to harvest early before they run out of water, or just to reduce water costs for the season.

Overall, however, "we are still expecting a good supply of California-grown avocados," although the window will be shortened for some, he said.

If the drought continues another year, "it becomes very concerning" he said.

In general, however, most growers this year "are not in any hurry" to pick their fruit, said Rob Wedin, vice president of fresh sales at Calavo Growers Inc. in Santa Paula, CA, March 18. Waiting longer to harvest will allow the smaller fruit to size. Also, growers are hoping to realize better prizes by being patient.

Last year's shipping season for Calavo's California avocados was March through October, Wedin said. This year, the company is looking at shipping most of its California fruit from the latter part of April through August and expects to have "very good supplies" during that time.

Green Earth Produce Trading Inc. in Los Angeles expects a "pretty solid supply" May through August," with "some volume available come mid-April," according to Gahl Crane, director of avocado operations. "We will have some very good size fruit, which is going to be important for the demand that is right around the corner," he said March 25.

Small-sized fruit, resulting from the heavy load on the trees, was a concern last year. This year, "there appears to be bigger fruit on the trees because there is less fruit per tree," said Bob Lucy, president of Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc. in Fallbrook, CA, March 19. The drought has negatively affected size, however, "If we had had a wet winter, you would have seen a lot more big fruit. Rain water really sizes up fruit," he said.